Saturday, March 5, 2016 | 2 a.m.
The UNLV basketball team had a 4-1 record under interim coach Todd Simon the last time they played San Diego State. The Rebels' season hasn’t been the same since.
UNLV showed a renewed life in its initial stretch after Dave Rice was fired, and while many of the same issues were still present, there was at least reason to hope that the season could turn out better than this. That hope was dashed in the first half against San Diego State when Ben Carter went down for the season with a torn ACL.
That defeat triggered a three-game skid, and Carter’s injury was prelude to five games with Stephen Zimmerman Jr., three games and counting without Dwayne Morgan, and now because of a canceled ACT score, Derrick Jones Jr. is likely out for the rest of the season.
“It seems to be a revolving door of who’s in and who’s out,” Simon said.
Two days after getting Zimmerman back for last Saturday's victory against Wyoming, Simon found out that the NCAA would take away Jones. And while senior Jerome Seagears continues to battle through his injuries, Morgan’s return isn’t guaranteed.
“Hard to say yet,” Simon said on Morgan. “He’s going through his day-to-day rehab, trying to get better.”
So while Viejas Arena prepares to celebrate seniors Winston Shepard, Skylar Spencer and Angelo Chol, and the third straight conference title they helped to secure, the Rebels limp in with one less scholarship player than a week ago and uncertain how many they’ll have when they begin the Mountain West tournament next week.
The Rebels could still move up to the No. 5 seed and get a bye with a win and a New Mexico loss at UNR, but they could also drop to No. 7 with a loss and a Colorado State victory at Air Force. UNLV is most likely to finish with the No. 6 seed, which would tip at 4 p.m. Wednesday against San Jose State.
Looking at potential seeding and matchups is more than UNLV needs to worry about these days, though. The latest off-court incident has taken Jones, their hottest hand, out of the lineup, so while figuring out how to attempt to get him back on the court they must also figure out how to play without him.
“We’re back in that five to six man mode,” Simon said.
The program isn’t allowed to comment on many specifics about Jones’ situation, Simon said, other than to say that they’re attempting to expedite Jones’ reinstatement. It’s unlikely that anything will happen in time for Jones to play this season, and the 6-foot-7 freshman forward can’t practice with the team, either.
“Obviously he was broken up at the time,” Simon said of when he broke the news. “He was very disappointed. It’s an emotional time.”
Yet if there’s a team that has reason to be confident despite losing a key player, it’s these Rebels. Viejas will likely be their toughest test, but UNLV can remind itself of the rally at Fresno State, when it switched to zone after Zimmerman’s injury and came back from a 17-point deficit before losing in double overtime.
The Rebels should play a lot of zone defense again in this one because of San Diego State’s trouble with jump shots, and if UNLV can control its turnovers then maybe, just maybe it can snap the Aztecs’ 7-game winning streak in the series. It would take their best shot to pull it off, and Simon at least knows he’s got a group that might be able to muster that despite another roster setback.
“We’re just kind of rolling with the punches, doing the best we can to take care of each situation as it rolls through,” Simon said. “But we’ve certainly had a lot of them.”